Their Holiday on Ice

Aimee Vieira and Dan McFall launched their South Burlington business, Full Stride, to turn their skills and enthusiasm for ice skating and hockey into a full-time endeavor.

by Rosalyn Graham

It was 1998. The Zamboni driver and the hockey coach basked in the brilliant sun of a warm April afternoon, and lamented the fact that they couldn't skate all year-round. Dan McFall, a lifelong hockey player, had just completed a very successful season coaching the Burlington High School hockey team to the state championship, and he dreamed of leaving his "day job" in construction to devote himself to hockey. Aimee Vieira had been driving the Zamboni at Leddy Park Arena, but that was as close as she had been to indulging her passion for ice skating during the previous winter. They asked themselves how they could take their skills and their enthusiasm for skating and hockey and turn them into a business.

Five years later the spark ignited that day is ensuring that not only the Zamboni driver and the hockey coach can skate every day of the year, but so can as many as 800 other people, from tots to septuagenarians, from ankle-bending novices to elite hockey players, all loving the exercise and challenge. The business they founded, Full Stride, combines recreation, education and management to offer hockey leagues for recreational players, serious players and senior elites described as AAA hockey without the checking instructional hockey leagues for women, adults and youth; learn-to-skate and learn-to-play hockey classes; and a Coffee Club hockey league that plays at 6 a.m.

They present clinics and special skills workshops; organize tournaments that attract teams from all over the Northeast; teach skating, power skating, shooting and hockey skills to youth teams all over the state; and consult with youngsters who have their hopes pinned on a hockey career. They have also applied the Full Stride model to classes for wannabe golfers who take lessons and play golf with the pros at Vermont National Country Club.

Like many opportunities for growth in their business, their golf instruction program was sparked by a casual conversation. Troy Spritser, start-up manager of the Vermont National Country Club, had skated in one of Full Stride's instructional league hockey teams. When he commented to McFall that he loved the format for the program, McFall jokingly said, "We should do this in golf." Spritser said, "Why not?"

"We've found a niche that wasn't being served," says McFall. "We decided our core business would be to cater to people that were new to hockey or new to the area. We would take individuals and make a team."

They quickly found that the women's market for their skating and hockey instruction was "huge," says Vieira, for "mothers who have kids who have played, and they always wanted to play and now have a venue where they can learn to skate and learn to play."

"In the last 10 years, with the development of the national women's team and their success in the Olympics, it gave a lot of women the understanding that they can play," Vieira says. "We've created a space where they can do it."

Andi Virtanen, league director and instructor, rounds out Full Stride's team of full-time workers. She's pictured with students in the Learn-to-Skate program.

McFall and Vieira's first idea for Full Stride was to travel nationwide teaching adult clinics, but it was the moment they began an adult instructional program in Burlington that things took off. "It was phenomenal," McFall remembers.

Men and women who had never had any instruction wanted to know how to skate how to take a shot and organizing a league for them to exercise their new skills was a logical next step. They now have five divisions 35 teams and run year-round. Although the classes and leagues mostly draw from Chittenden County, they do have hockey players who drive from Ticonderoga, N.Y., to play hockey at 11 at night.

Vieira and McFall have made a real difference in the lives of many of the people they teach and coach. Veronica Merritt signed up for McFall's women's instructional league two years ago. "I had skated, but never played hockey," she says. Now Merritt, who owns Buds & Roses in Taft Corners with her husband, Jim, is on a women's recreational travel team, plays in a D3 level coed league and plays three times a week. Jim plays on her coed team and on another coed team at the more demanding D2 level.

Merritt credits McFall and Vieira and their teaching talents with inspiring her to keep progressing. "Ninety percent of the women on our team are a product of Full Stride hockey," she says. "If it wasn't for them, none of us would be playing."

Another important part of the Full Stride business, and the most rewarding for both McFall and Vieira, is the beginner program for tots. Four years ago, they were asked to take on the group lesson skating program at Cairns Arena. "We start with kids who, the first day, don't want to leave Mom and Dad and six weeks later, it's, 'Forget Mom and Dad, I just want to get out there and play.'"

Often that love for the sport can spread through a whole family. A year and a half ago, Lorraine Pitcher of Shelburne signed up her 5-year-old twin daughters, Rachel and Heather, and 4-year-old son, Andrew, for the Mini Mite hockey program. "They absolutely loved it," she says. "They started skating all year-round." Pitcher and her husband, Mark, join them for family skating and are delighted by the friendships the children and the family have made among their fellow skaters.

With classes, clinics and leagues, and games to referee and all the organizational underpinnings to juggle, McFall and Vieira have developed a broad network of teachers and coaches. Their Kimball Avenue office has one full-time employee, Andi Virtanen, a hockey-playing native of Finland. Figure skating professional Sharie Elrick works part-time in the office and teaches classes. This year there has been a major shift in the office as Vieira is pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Montreal. Elrick has taken on Vieira's responsibility for managing ice time, and with hundreds of participants in the diverse range of programs, there are constant phone calls and queries on the Internet.

For McFall, at 40, life as a skating guru and mentor to aspiring skaters and hockey players of all ages would seem like a pretty straight path from his childhood in Buffalo, N.Y., where his father ran two of the biggest rinks in the city and McFall and his brothers were "rink rats." He attended Michigan State University on a hockey scholarship, played with the Winnipeg Jets in the National Hockey League and on farm teams in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and Fort Wayne, Ind. Burned out, he and his wife moved to Burlington, a city they had visited during a day-trip "to speak English" while he was playing in Sherbrooke. For 10 years he had his own construction business. "I got out of hockey completely," he says. "In six years I skated maybe three times."

Then, he says, his marriage fell apart and he rediscovered his hockey roots, playing hockey again with a group of guys at Leddy, coaching with his friend Brent Truchon at Burlington High School and doing hockey camps with his brothers in Buffalo and Jamestown, N.Y. Then he met the Zamboni driver.

Members of a recent Learn-to-Play-Hockey class flash by the camera.

Vieira came to hockey in a highly untraditional way. She grew up in Southern California, so it was a puzzle to her family when she began to ask, at the age of 7 or 8, to learn to skate. With the nearest rink 45 minutes away, her chances to skate were few and far between, but when she arrived as a freshman at Michigan State University, she bought a pair of figure skates and began skating all the time. When she heard they were forming a women's club team, she bought her first pair of hockey skates and skated every day for the next month to figure out "how to do this skating business on hockey skates" so she could make the team. It was her experience finding herself on the ice with 40 teenage kids at a learn-to-play hockey clinic that sowed the seed that was to burst into bloom a few years later when she had finished her master's degree in sociology and, burned out on school, moved to Vermont and got what she describes as "a hockey player's dream job" driving the Zamboni.

For McFall, Full Stride has been an opportunity to come back to the game that has been his life. "I love the whole part of teaching it," he says, "but also the satisfaction of forming the groups. That's one of the greatest joys of the sport."

For Vieira, 31, Full Stride has been a place to play and develop her skills. "It may be totally egocentric, but some of the programs we have developed are so I can play the highest level hockey I can play," she says and play she does. The Queen City Hockey Club she started took second place in a national women's tournament last year.

There is more to it than that. As Vieira says, "Sometimes we walk into the rink and count the number of players wearing jerseys with our name on it and know that there is a person who had never skated until they came to us two years ago and now look they are organizing their own team and going to away tournaments and have a wonderful network of friends and relationships they would never have had if we hadn't started this. It's so rewarding and fulfilling. It's really a labor of love."

Originally published in January 2004 Business People-Vermont